Australian students (clockwise from back left) Bridget Harilaou, Rebecca Lawrence, Harrison Hall and Thomas Brown are studying in Indonesia under the New Colombo Plan. Photo: Latika Bourke David Hill says sending Australian students to Indonesia can improve the bilateral relationship when political tensions arise. Photo: Latika Bourke
It was a shock to his own parents, Thomas Brown says, when he told them that the overseas university where he wanted to enrol was not the hallowed institutions of Cambridge or Oxford but one in Indonesia.
Chatting over the call to prayer at lunchtime in downtown Yogyakarta, the capital of Java, the New Colombo scholar says his parents couldn’t understand his decision to head north instead of across the Indian ocean to Europe.
“I think that reflects the generational issue, they didn’t see the value in going to Indonesia to study at all,” he says.
The New Colombo plan is one of the Coalition’s signature policies and aims to lift engagement in the Indo-Pacific through a mix of internships and scholarships.
Fellow scholar, 21-year old Bridget Harilaou’s Indonesian-born mother initially shared the same sentiments. “She didn’t understand – ‘why would you go back to the place I escaped from?’ she’d say,” Harilaou recounts with a smile. “Now she understands though.”
But is it purely generational? “I get it so much from other students in Australia,” 20-year old Rebecca Lawrence says. “My parents are definitely scared of volcanoes and terrorism but all my friends have gone to Europe or the UK and say ‘I can’t believe you’ve gone to Indonesia, it’s too hot, Europe’s much nicer’.”
Harrison Hall, 22, is studying finance and wants to go into business so choosing to study in Asia rather than Europe was simple.
“For the industries I’m hoping to enter, Australian trading in Asia is so much stronger in comparison with what we do in Europe or North America. It’s a smarter study choice and the travel opportunities are there, too,” he says.
Thomas Brown wants to work in development and “Indonesia is a great place for Australians to get a start in development”.
Under the Kuliah Kerja Nyata (field study service) program, domestic university students have to complete community service work. International students studying development often choose to take part as well.
This led Brown to his most challenging experience yet – Indonesian village life.
“Living in a village was really hard for me,” he says. Firstly there was the language barrier. Despite intensive Bahasa Indonesia lessons Brown turned up for his community service in the province of Java only to find everyone speaking the local language – Javanese – a completely different language. (Bahasa Indonesia is spoken in the national capital Jakarta but there are more than 300 languages and dialects spoken across Indonesia’s islands.)
“There was seven of us and we lived in the head of the village’s house, four boys in one room and three girls in the other room. It was really hot and were sharing a bathroom (with a squat not Western toilet) with 20 other people – it was not without its challenges,” he says.
But village life gave Brown an important insight into the process of implementing aid programs and getting things done in Indonesia.
“To see how much bureaucracy there is, even at a basic village level, you have to have meetings and there has to be a process … it’s such a good experience to know that when you’re trying to implement something how hard it can be even at that micro level,” he says.
“When I went back to Australia and I was in development classes I realised this is actually something a lot of people haven’t seen for themselves.”
It’s a far cry from what Rebecca Lawrence’s friends think she’s up to while abroad. “My friends would think I was in Bali the whole time and walking around in a bikini and drinking.It’s a majority Muslim country – these are the two things you don’t do,” she laughs.
Lawrence’s grasp of local life is the sort of cultural insight the New Colombo policy is aimed at generating as Australia looks to deepen its trade, economic and services links with Asia. To date, 10,000 students have been supported to study in 32 countries including Mongolia, India and the Cook Islands.
There are basic life skills to learn: finding a boarding house (or kosan) to live in, buying water, electricity and Wi-Fi, adapting to a formal and respectful dress code in a tropical climate, but the quartet are unanimous in agreeing that life in Indonesia is, for the most part, extremely welcoming – and fun.
Lawrence is on her second stay in Indonesia. The first six months was such a “culture shock” that she wanted to come back better prepared to navigate and enjoy Indonesia’s complexity.
“It’s actually a fantastic place, university is challenging and learning the language is hard but you can travel, the cost of living is low and we have a lot of spare time and everyone gets along, everyone is so friendly,” she says.
All have developed a keen interest in Indonesia, its news and politics and dabble in online commentary on Indonesian-Australian issues. They are avid consumers of Indonesian news when back home in Australia and use Facebook and Snapchat to provide glimpses into Indonesian life, beyond Bali, for their friends and family.
“The misconceptions are greater on the Australian side,” Harilaou says. “I’m using social media and it’s helped more than anything with my friends and geography, our little status updates, our photos: I think they make a difference.”
This sort of soft diplomacy has the potential to transform public understanding of the relationship when political tensions arise, says Professor David Hill, who heads the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS).
“When there’s an event that creates tension between the two countries, it’s often the conversation around the cafeteria or the lunchroom in a workspace which forms public attitudes in Australia just as much as it is pronouncements from government,” he says.
Hill wrote a report in 2012 declaring Indonesian language learning in Australian education was “in crisis” with fewer Year 12 students studying Indonesian in 2009 compared with 1972. Enrolments in Indonesian university studies dropped 37 per cent last decade, despite the overall undergraduate population growing by 40 per cent. His report predicted that without change, by 2022 Indonesian studies would be gone from all universities except in Victoria and the NT.
It is the story of Australia’s on and off again relationship with Asian and Asian language studies.
In the ’70s, Bahasa Indonesia was in vogue. Now politicians are stressing Mandarin studies given the economy’s dependence on China. ACICIS itself hopes to expand and diversify the countries and languages it promotes to Australian students including India (Hindi) and Vietnamese. It received $2.16 million of funding under the New Colombo Plan in 2016.
The New Colombo Plan is a revived program that subsidises Australian students studying in Asian universities. It is Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s pet policy, although critics question why the Australian government would fund comparatively richer students to go to Asia, instead of concentrating on bringing Asian students to Australia to study.
ACICIS confronts this perception, too. It has tried, unsuccessfully so far, to interest the business sector in helping fund and create programs placing Australian students in Indonesia.
“A common response we get from organisations is that they are more attracted to providing scholarships to Indonesian students or to fund Indonesian educational institutions here rather than to support a program that benefits Australian students,” Hill says.
And on one crude metric this failure to stoke an Australian interest in Asia shows.
In Susilo Bambang Yudohoyono’s last Cabinet four ministers had either studied at or graduated from Australian universities. By contrast, the number of Australian Ministers who have studied in Indonesia is zero.
“I doubt any would be able to hold a basic conversation in Indonesian,” Hill says.
Some are learning. Last year, Chris Bowen, Labor’s Treasury spokesman and potential future leader, began Bahasa Indonesia language studies. His NSW colleague Stephen Jones has also taken up lessons.
They reflect the minority of Australians learning another language, despite the hype around the so-called “Asian Century”.
In almost all OECD countries, students finish high school with a foreign language except Australia and just 10 per cent of students here are studying a foreign language, compared with 40 per cent in the 1960s.
Arresting this decline will take more than New Colombo.
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